College Lists Should Have Financial Safety Schools

A high school student’s College List is the set of institutions to which he or she will apply in senior year. They are the colleges that that the student determines are exceptionally well suited to their needs, goals, finances, talents, and preferences. A strong College List is vital to the success of a student’s admissions campaign.

Most college admissions experts recommend that a student’s College List have eight to twelve schools on it, all of which the student would be happy to attend. The schools are usually divided into three categories, as follows.

    1. Colleges that the student aspires to attend but at which they have only a 25% or less chance of admission based on the academic records of those admitted in the prior year. They are often referred to as Reach or Dream schools.
    2. Colleges to which the student is likely to be admitted because their academic record is above the average of the applicants admitted in the prior year. They are often referred to as Likely or Target schools.
    3. Colleges to which the applicant is almost certain to be admitted because their record is equal to the top of prior year admittees. They are often referred to as Safety schools.

The third category, Safety schools, is our concern here. Put simply, just because admission to a college is virtually assured doesn’t mean that the family can afford it. We recommend that every student’s College List include at least one Financial Safety School (FSS). An FSS is Safety school that the family is sure that they can afford.

Applicants Should Always Submit a FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form completed by prospective and current college students to determine their eligibility for Federal, state, and private financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and loans. In a search for financial aid, families should understand that it’s essential that a student submit a FAFSA to the U.S. Education Department (ED).

The FAFSA is usually available online from the ED on October 1 for the following academic year. However, this year it won’t be available until December 1, 2023.

Reasons for FSS’s on a College List

Imagine that a student gets admitted to five of the schools to which he applied: one Reach school, two Likely schools, and two Safety schools. Unfortunately, they may all be unaffordable unless at least one of them is an FSS.

Examples of families that should include at least one FSS on the College List are provided below:

  • The student aspires to attend colleges at which the family cannot afford the Cost of Attendance (COA) with their savings, investments, and income.
  • The results of the Net Price Calculator (NPC’s) are unclear on the ability of the family to afford the schools on the College List. At best, NPC’s only provide an estimate. There is no guarantee that the student will actually receive the amount of aid indicated by the NPC. It could be higher or lower.
  • The student is relying on colleges to award them at least the average amount in free financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants, as indicated in the Common Data Set, but such aid is awarded to only a few applicants and the winners aren’t notified until spring.
  • The family is not sure of their ability to afford college because their annual income fluctuates or they expect to have more than one child in college.

Understanding What Constitutes an FSS

An FSS is a college that the family can afford without relying on additional financial aid. This  excludes aid that won’t be awarded until spring and borrowed funds that will burden the student with debt. Families need to have a handle on their financial circumstances and prospects to make sound decisions. They should know:

  • What the family can afford to divert from monthly cash flow.
  • What will be available from tuition plans, investments, and savings.
  • What will be contributed by grandparents, other relatives, and friends.
  • What the student can contribute from their savings and from the income from summer and part-time jobs during the school year.
  • The likelihood of raises, promotions, and bonuses for the parents.

To the yearly total from the sources above, families should add:

  • Known free financial aid in the form of scholarships from all sources.
  • Known free financial aid in the form of grants from governmental entities.

Loans as a Source of Funds for College

Many families choose to rely on borrowed funds to cover the cost of college. Borrowing is advised only if it doesn’t incur excessive long term debt.

Federal Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans have lower interest rates and better terms than loans from private sector sources such as banks. Subsidized Federal loans are better than Unsubsidized loans in the terms of repayment, but only families who demonstrate financial need on their FAFSA are eligible for them.

How to Identify FSS’s for the College List

An FSS is defined by the price that’s guaranteed in advance. To be an FSS, a college must make known what its net price will be and guarantee that price. The family can then determine if the college’s price is affordable without additional financial aid. A family knows that their student can afford the college without waiting until spring to receive a financial aid package if admitted.

Below are a few places to look for colleges that may be suitable as FSS’s:

  • Public colleges in the student’s home state, especially non-flagship campuses. The five states with the lowest tuition for in-state students are Florida, Wyoming, North Carolina, Montana, and Utah.
  • Public colleges outside of the student’s home state that have tuition reciprocity agreements with the home state. These agreements substantially reduce undergraduate out-of-state tuition. The Western Undergraduate Exchange is the largest reciprocity program. Ten states participate in it: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, and Nevada.
  • Community colleges have more affordable tuition rates than four-year colleges. The average tuition in 2023 is $4,973 per year for in-state students and $8,692 for out-of-state students.
  • Colleges that guarantee a partial or full scholarship to students whose academic records meet a pre-defined threshold.

There are free search features on a number of websites that allow affordability parameters to be set by the user. Example include CollegeRaptor, U.S. News & World Report, EducationCorner, Niche, CollegeCost (maintained by the ED), BigFuture (maintained by the College Board), and CollegeConsensus.